Essay: Hey, Publishers: Stop fooling us, and yourselves

For an industry built on a foundation of truth-telling, the newspaper business sure has trouble telling the truth about itself.

Last month at the World Newspaper Congress in Turin, Italy, the chief spokesperson for U.S.-based dailies, Newspaper Association of America President Caroline Little, gave publishers, editors and educators from around the world a presentation on “the current state of newspaper media in the United States.”

Little’s PowerPoint show was a work of art. With her palette of selective statistics, context-less trend statements and stock photos of smiling, young news consumers, she painted an uplifting masterpiece worthy of the Italian master Botticelli. His cherubic angels were Little’s news-hungry Millennials; his dancing nymphs were her nimble publishers.

David Boardman, Dean, Temple University School of Media and Communication

David Boardman, Dean, Temple University School of Media and Communication

If I hadn’t known better – knowledge gained through years as the editor of The Seattle Times and in my current role as the president of the American Society of News Editors – I’d have thought U.S. papers were thriving. I might have walked out of the auditorium, Skyped my financial advisor and said, “Forget waiting on that Uber IPO; put my money in Lee Newspapers stock.”

Luckily for my family and my financial future, I know spin when I see it. The NAA and the companies it represents are spinning far too often these days.

Here’s what Little and her PowerPoint said – and what she didn’t say:

What she said: “Total revenue for the multiplatform U.S. newspaper media business amounted to $37.59 billion in 2013.” What she didn’t say: It was a billion dollars more than that in 2012, $2 billion more in 2011, and $12 billion more in 2006. In other words, it’s dropped by a third in seven years and continues to fall with no end in sight.

What she said: “The printed newspaper continues to reach more than half of the U.S. adult population.” What she didn’t say: But the percentage of Americans who routinely read a printed paper daily continues its dramatic decline, and is somewhere down around 25 percent.  “Reaching” in Little’s reference can mean those people read one issue in the past week; it doesn’t mean they are regular daily readers of the printed paper.

What she said: “This is not an audience that will be abandoning newspapers anytime soon.” What she didn’t say: But they may soon be reading pass-around copies in the nursing home. I recently learned from internal sources that for one major newspaper, the average age of its daily readers moved from 55 to 60 in just 18 months. What will it be by 2020?

To her credit, Little did address the need for newspapers to find new sources of revenue, especially digital. She pointed out, correctly, that newspaper content is drawing significant readership online. But she portrayed a fiction where papers could invent a new future while holding on tightly to the past.

I was once a member of this flat-earth society. Briefly, I believed, like Orange County Register owner Aaron Kushner, that if we restored the papers to their pre-recession levels of quality and size, subscribers would come back. I no longer believe that (and neither, based on the massive layoffs at Kushner’s paper, does he).

There is no doubt that newspapers accelerated this decline with the astounding, quarterly-returns-driven decimation of their products over the past decade. But to pretend that the profound shift from fiber to cyber is anything short of a revolution in news consumption is a disservice to journalism and to the democracy that depends upon it.

We don’t need access to newspaper circulation and revenue figures, spun or otherwise, to see the reality. Get on a commuter train, go to a coffee shop, go to an airport, go to any of the places where people used to devour printed newspapers, and see how few are doing that now.

Let’s get real. The seven-day-a-week printed newspaper – particularly in metropolitan areas – is terminally ill. Working to sustain it is not only futile, but ultimately destructive to the very values its champions espouse.

In a recent post titled, “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” New York University professor Clay Shirky, nemesis of the NAA, wrote, “We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print.” I agree – to a point.

Yes, on a Tuesday morning at Starbucks, laptops and tablets outnumber newspapers, dozens to one. But go on a Sunday morning, and you’ll see latte-sippers of all ages perusing that day’s paper, sections spread out over tabletops. For years, newspaper publishers and editors have known through market research that the Sunday paper is a different, more intimate experience for consumers. A good Sunday edition, with a mix of investigative journalism, profiles, cultural reporting, perspective pieces, sports analysis, photography, comics, crosswords and coupons, is an experience many people value and even love. My twentysomething daughters and their friends can’t imagine buying a Tuesday paper, but love the Sunday morning paper-and-pajamas party.

And for most papers, the Sunday edition already accounts for more than half of their total revenue. For some, it’s around 60 percent. It’s a proven, effective vehicle for advertisers.

So, I say to publishers: Invest in a superb, in-depth, last-all-week Sunday (or better yet, Saturday) paper, a publication so big and rich and engaging that readers will devour it piece by piece over many days, and pay a good price for that pleasure. Get together with each other and consolidate your printing operations, creating one independent print-and-deliver contractor in each geographic region who can shed the outdated and outsized costs of your legacy operations.

Then turn your attention and your resources where they belong now: Creating meaningful, engaging and sustainable news products for emerging technologies, where most of you are already woefully behind such innovative rivals as Vox and Vice.

Move deliberately to one weekly, “lean back” printed paper and an array of quality, interactive, “lean in” digital products, especially for mobile devices, to which your readers are moving far faster than you are.

(One tidbit Little did reveal in her Italy PowerPoint: Newspaper advertising on mobile platforms, by far the fastest-growing vehicle for news consumption, amounts to less than 1 percent of the industry’s total.)

Use that money you’re spending now on newsprint, ink, pressmen, trucks, drivers and gasoline and hire more reporters, photographers, videographers, data journalists, software developers, mobile designers, social-media experts, workflow architects, marketing strategists and digital advertising pros. Recognize, like the big tech companies do, that the most valuable thing your digital readers can give you is their data, not their dollars.

Turn your attention, now so inwardly focused, outward. Build your community connections, especially with minority groups that will soon become the majority.

Don’t worry about your remaining loyal print readers. Most will readily pay you whatever you ask for that quality weekly, perhaps even what you charge them for the full week now.

Finally, make this transition in a brave, bold, confident – and candid – way. Go seven days to one in a fell swoop, avoiding the confusion Newhouse has created in its cities with four-days-a-week publication.

Pick a date certain – say, January 1, 2018 – and tell your readers and advertisers unapologetically that that’s where you are headed, why you are headed there, and that you want their help in figuring out how to get there in a way that will serve them and the community best.

They – and the 38,000 journalists still working for American newspapers – deserve the truth. They can handle it. Can you?

David Boardman is Dean of the Temple University School of Media and Communication. He is also president of the American Society of News Editors and chairman of the Poynter Institute’s National Advisory Board. His views are his own and he is not speaking for those organizations.

Caroline Little Response: We need to embrace all media including print

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  • http://mwpr.ca/ Merv Ritchie

    As a relative new comer to the entire media industry – owner/operator/reporter/editor/publisher/printer/pressman of 3 different newspapers and 5 news websites I offer these thoughts on the cyber and the fibre.

    First, the consumer is interested in news. That is why it is called a newspaper. Not propaganda from governments and industry. Not content modified such that the “news provider” does not offend a potential source of revenue. The consumer is interested in the dirt no matter what carpet it is hiding under and no matter what Chamber of Commerce, Church or Rotarian it offends. And the closer one can deliver the content to the consumers home community the better. Filling pages by writing the same words using different adjectives numerous times is offensive as is rewriting news releases pretending someone did something “investigative”.

    In less than 6 months we captivated the entire online audience in Northwestern BC. With no business experience, as a sole operator, I was able to produce more relevant content online every day than the local “Black Press” publications produced every week. On a flight to Vancouver the local airline provided free newspapers for the passengers and after flipping through the Vancouver Province and the Vancouver Sun (Post Medias British Columbia flagship newspapers) I counted and realized I alone produced more relevant local/regional content everyday than even these major newspapers.

    Then I discovered the truth. Reporters from the other media outlets would call me with stories to give me the goods on stuff they couldn’t write about. It is all about the money and no newspaper will publish expose’s where it might affect their revenue. As all revenue comes from major players in the Chamber of Commerce and political world – we are all left with pabulum no one wants to read.

    After exposing numerous business “elite” the local Chamber crowd conducted what was essentially a “Fatwa” against us. Those smaller companies who advertised were denied contracts by the more influential. After critiquing the Catholic Church and the new Pope the local Knights of Columbus visited every last one of our advertisers and literally ordered them to cease supporting us. I recorded the calls from the advertisers telling us they had to pull their ad because the Catholics called them.

    The reason online works, and the reason it is run by individuals on a shoe string is due to this financial control of the Chamber – Rotarians – Churches – Politics.

    We offered free everything – classifieds, business listings, community announcements, links to everything in the region, calendar of events etc etc. This brought in all the general public. Even the realtors called to express how fast the classifieds worked, how great the event calendar was, the links etc. The local RCMP even told new recruits to frequent our site as that was where all the real information was.

    But after we exposed the RCMP they pulled us from their “news release” list claiming we were not credible. The realtors would not advertise as they were dependent on the major business elite in town. The City wouldn’t advertise because we exposed the CAO of his corruption.

    We produced a printed weekly summary of what was online all week and delivered it free of charge. The website ads from one small website news service paid for everything. By myself I was making in excess of $10,000/mth I was more than comfortable.

    The end of the revenue was harsh and deliberate and it was all due to telling the truth.

    That is why the newspaper “world” is all but dead. The public want the truth and the business community will not pay anyone who tells the truth. Nor will the governments. The Catholics will gang up and beat you to a pulp if you dare expose their pedophilia.

    So the general public is searching for news online and the newspapers continue to print pabulum no one wants to waste their time reading.

    In many less words – Cowards get paid what they are worth and the general public gets the news they pay for. Both answers are “nothing”.

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  • Doug Fisher

    John’s calculation is correct. Another way to do it: ((final/initial)-1)*100. In this case (37.59/49.59)= 0.758. 0.758-1= -0.242 or -24.2%

  • JTFloore

    quality DOES sell. failure to recognize that, along with an embarrassing, longstanding failure to effectively market themselves, have been big, big contributors to newspapers’ demise.

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  • Brian Mann

    Hi folks – I want to respond to the Scottsines comments below. There is absolutely no doubt that the newspaper business has changed fundamentally. The “fifth estate” model wherein newspapers would hold an essentially public utility role in society is flat dead. The vast payrolls with layers of editors and copy-editors and field reporters and writers, that was all built sloppily and lazily on the “easy money” framework of the pre-internet era. The idea that newspapers will have enough staff to go to every single public meeting and do a tedious stenographic treatment of every bureaucratic event — that’s dead. And I for one am grateful for it. Equally dead is the idea that people want or need newspapers to be all things to all people. Newspapers need strong, decisive editors with a clear sense of their market and their audience. (They also need publishers who are smart, ruthless businesspeople.) Finally, it’s absolutely true that technology has made running newspapers vastly more efficient. A lot of the blood in the water is lost revenue, sure. But a lot of it is the fact that people realized that they could run really damned good newspapers with dramatically fewer bodies in the building. The good news, again, is that we already have — right now — a new leaner industry which is still pushing out amazing reporting every day. Those papers not still burdened by the ridiculous debt loads and absurd business decisions of the 1990s and 2000s are generally holding their own or turning a decent profit. The next step — and here’s where the business challenge comes in — is finding ways to improve sales. (Isn’t that what every other business in America accepts as part of their reality?) Marketing, great writing, events, synergies with other media, great writing (I’m going to keep repeating that), risk-taking, great product placements, attractive designs, and great writing. If we do all that, and we hire writers and great sales people, newspapers will hold their new, more realistic niche just fine.

  • msps

    This is just the philosophy–downsizing everything in the paper until it is little more than a collection of stories filed and/or printed elsewhere, making the TV schedule a separate paid item, and filling the Sunday paper at least with a pile of advertising crap that goes directly into the recycle bin–that is killing print newspapers. I think there are plenty of us out here who do not want to read newspapers online. I know I don’t. I hate the forced scrolling to ads and all the garbage jumping around for my attention. I want to hold the actual paper in my hand and read what I want of it. The print segment should make their product worthwhile and worth paying for again. That would likely revive some sales. The only reason Boardman and his ilk like the digital version better is because it costs them less in so many ways.

  • arthurofrhodes

    Not at all. Boardman is off base on this one. Many people would much rather get their newspaper in print, even though I also read my daily’s web site regularly. There are too many things that just don’t translate well to or are much more cumbersome on the web, like baseball box scores, cartoons, etc.

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  • roblimo

    I subscribe to the Sunday Printout (paper edition) of my local paper because it’s cheaper than subscribing to the online edition alone.

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  • http://wadeonbirmingham.com/ Wade Kwon

    Caroline Little’s slides:
    http://www.slideshare.net/WAN-IFRA/cl-wan-06-2014

    Caroline Little’s column, “What the newspaper trends of 2014 mean for the industry’s future,” June 2014:
    http://www.naa.org/News-and-Media/CEO-Update/2014-June-Newspaper-Trends.aspx

  • Pete Litterski

    Someone needs to solve the business model dilemma soon. There are many people left in the newspaper business who have the reporting skills, the drive and the ethics to continue a healthy local news operation, even if I am not one of them. (Downsized in January 2009.) The same attributes that made great newspaper reporters in the 20th century are needed in the people who are going to be our reporters in the 21st century. My greatest fear, however, is that as we debate how soon we need to make the big shift as described by David Boardman we are leaving the door open for people with good business models but less than sterling news values (think cable news).

    In the long run, many questions will sort themselves out. The young people who say they don’t care about local news today overlook the value of information about entertainment, education and athletic issues in their lives. And as they begin to build families, buy homes and sweat the details of community life, they will seek good sources for accurate, timely and thorough local reporting.

    Today’s news operations that focus on key days (Thursday, Saturday Sunday in some markets) and on niche publications (boomers, women, entertainment/culture) will likely be the ones that survive and eventually thrive in an industry where fiber backs up the cyber.

    My biggest regret is that I am no longer in the newsroom because I envy those editors who have so many tools at their disposal because now, more than ever, they can take their wild and crazy ideas about major reporting projects and make them doable thanks to the flexibility, depth and added bandwith (read newsprint) that the cyber side of their operations gives them. I had a few small tastes of that before I was offered early retirement, and I must say it was enticing.

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  • scottsines

    I mostly agree with Brian Mann’s comments but I stumble when he gets to ” The good news, however, is that print journalism is not a sinking ship. It’s a ship that’s become smaller
    and harder to sail and there are a lot more competitors out there trying to woo
    away our customers. So it’s time to toughen up and quit whining about the glory
    days of easy money.” 


    
My BS meter redlines right there. Print is a sinking ship. The only reason they haven’t hit bottom is because they keep throwing people overboard to stay afloat. According to Erica Smith, of the Paper Cuts blog newspapers have cut nearly 40,000 jobs since 2007. A survey from the American Society Newspapers reports shows that nearly 1 in 3 newsroom jobs have been eliminated since1989. Shrinking staff to show a profit is not a sustainable
    strategy.

    

Apologies to David Boardman but we recently had a house full of well-educated 20-somethings and there was no pajama party on Sunday morning. No
    ritual. They read the paper for as long as it took to have a cordial good morning chat, down
    some coffee, eat a cup of yogurt, a banana and a bagel. One worked the crossword. Then they were off. They have things to do. Yet they’re very knowledgeable about current events that affect them.

    

So that’s the riddle to me. Using the lessons from the great journalism we’ve seen but not being bound by an old model. The one thing that connects readers to journalists, to
    businesses and community organizations is a shared passion. That is where I think
    the future of journalism is… connecting storytelling by someone who cares,
    with readers and a larger community who care as well. And generally people
    financially support their passions. How else do you explain Bass Pro Shops?

  • John Kroll Digital

    If total revenue was $37.59 billion in 2013 and $12 billion more in 2006 … wouldn’t that mean it fell about a quarter, not a third? 37.59 + 12 = 49.59; 12/49.59 = 24.2%

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  • Leslie DuPree

    I suggested this model more than 10 years ago to the publisher and business manager of a daily newspaper and was laughed out of the room.

  • Christopher Mengel

    Interesting argument, but it’s based on a flawed assumption that if publishers save money by cutting back on “newsprint, ink, pressmen, trucks and drivers” they will then reinvest those savings by hiring more reporters, photographers, journalists, etc., to produce more valuable data to the reader. Ho-ho-ho. Not gonna’ happen when the unspoken philosophy of moguls who control today’s media world is “do more with less.”

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  • Brian Mann

    I think Mr. Boardman is categorically wrong. Here’s the situation. Newspapers used to be a ridiculously easy business. Anyone who didn’t blow themselves up with aggressively stupid business practices could harvest the classified, public notice, grocery, and car dealership insert ad revenue and – combined with reasonable display ad and circulation – sit back and enjoy a comfortable profit margin. Newspapers were in many communities a monopolistic source of local and regional news. As a result, even crappy papers enjoyed fairly strong circulation and relevance. Especially after communities had shifted to a one-newspaper climate, with little competition, businessmen in this industry had no need to do things like market their products, or refine their work to reflect their audiences’ needs and desires. Some of us were great journalists. Very, very few of us were good businesspeople. The environment has now changed. To succeed, newspapers need to be run like every other business, with lean operations, great marketing, and an appealing, reliable product. Mr. Boardman is correct that consumers are no longer effectively required to buy newspapers – the days of newspaper as public utility or quasi-public agency are over. But this is still a product that 25% of Americans use weekly, many of us daily. It is still a product — and I’m talking about printed newspapers now — that generates real profits at many, many, many companies. Unlike the digital sphere, where the number of companies producing real journalism while operating in the black is negligible. So what’s the formula going forward? It’s not abandoning their product. Newspapers are not buggy whips. And it’s not accepting broad, one-size-fits-all theories from academics who are patently not businessmen. First, newspapers need to struggle beyond the lingering debt crisis that has crippled so many of our greatest dailies. Second, newspapers need to become much more aggressive about marketing and selling their product. Third, newspaper companies need to get past the idea that somehow they will return to the days of 10-20% easy profit margins. This can, demonstrably, be a profitable business. But it will never be a money-mill again. Finally, people who are serious about the newspaper business need to be realistic about the fact that (so far at least) digital journalism simply does not produce the kind of revenue that will support their work. We may be in the middle of some kind of transition. But for the moment at least, there is no life-raft to step onto. The good news, however, is that print journalism is not a sinking ship. It’s a ship that’s become smaller and harder to sail and there are a lot more competitors out there trying to woo away our customers. So it’s time to toughen up and quit whining about the glory days of easy money. It’s time to stop looking for easy answers — and time to stop listening to people who want a profitable industry to simpley give up. It’s time to get down to the tedious, serious work of fighting for market share and building strong companies and hiring great employees who can help us put out great daily products. — Brian Mann, journalist, NCPR/public radio

  • Martin Langeveld

    I’ve been suggesting since 2008 that reducing frequency to one, two or three issues per week would be a smart step. (http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/2008/11/bottom-line-how-it-fares-when-you-nuke.html) The exact same pros and cons I listed there still hold. Regarding the potential loss of print revenue: newspapers who cut to 1, 2 or 3 issues per week strategically can shift most of what they still have into those issues, and perhaps even gain revenue if the products are good enough. No advertiser is very inclined to go into a skinny Monday paper. But they’ll jump into a fat Thursday or Saturday paper. Sticking with 7-day print for the sake of the “golden goose” makes no sense, because it preserves the wrong culture throughout the organization and focuses on the wrong customers.

  • jeanettekavant

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  • JeffreyWeiss

    What you didn’t say: The vast, vast majority of revenue at newspapers today still comes from fiber not cyber (which is a great phrase I am stealing forever). The number of locally based online news organizations making enough money to support a newspaper-sized journalistic infrastructure is exactly zero, yes? Ad sales online have not replaced the revenue of dead-tree ads and show no sign of doing so. With extremely few exceptions, paywalls have failed.

    So your solution is to dismiss the daily needs of the people who still are paying for daily newspapers and march into the future certain that a pony will eventually show up under that pile of digital hype?

    No question the dead-tree market is aging and shrinking. Or that some other business model must be developed to pay for the level and variety of information service that a daily newspaper provides. Or that service will go buggy-whip.

    But strangling the still-laying goose before you have even a hint of a new source of eggs seems not to be a plan with much chance of success. Not for many of us who would like to keep our jobs producing journalism as the change unfolds. Or you figure that staff cuts as a result of tossing 50-60 percent of revenue (your estimate of non-Sunday money) will leave a product that customers will continue paying for at the same rate?

    The industry *is* on a glide path to a crash. I’m hoping publishers are doing what they can to make that the longest possible glide path. And that someone, somewhere will come up with a business model that flies before we all hit the mountain.

  • MaryJo Webster

    Thank you for writing this! This is the kind of straight-forward and blunt discussion we need right now. And I’m completely behind your weekend-only print publication idea. I’ve long thought that was the way to go, especially investing in investigative and in-depth reporting. Readers will love it and come to realize it’s better than having us spread ourselves too thin.

  • SamRoe

    Very interesting piece. I’m not so pessimistic. The first thing my 10-year- old twins do in the morning is get the NYT off the porch and do the KenKen puzzle and look at the front page to find out who’s killing who. I’m completely biased, but I think they are better informed than many 20 somethings at Starbucks. I’m hoping they will get into the college of their choice. BTW, I think your revenue calculation is wrong. Shouldn’t it be 24 percent?

  • http://flavors.me/eclisham Elaine Clisham

    I would add one thing: Stop the handwringing over skydiving ad revenues, and go find new revenue streams completely divorced from “advertising.” And then document and report those with as much fanfare as you report traditional revenues. (See ProPublica on selling data for a good example.) What gets measured gets better, remember?

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  • Frank Scandale

    david, i agree. I have been saying the three-day-per-week model makes no sense. no sense of rhythm for the reader, particularly. “Oh, it’s Tuesday, does the paper come today, or is that tomorrow?” With a heavy emphasis on what’s happening now online, papers can then tell readers what it all meant and what it will mean going forward. context and analysis will be its features.

  • Greg Burton

    The sort of truth telling that made the Seattle Times great.